Beginning a Schoolwide Recycling Program Was Easier Than I Expected


With the help of students and colleagues, I am trying to bring consistent, accurate recycling to the school where I teach. And I am attempting to teach students about recycling–by having them do it together.

* * *

On January 1st of this year, recycling in Oregon changed. We had been shipping much of our recycling to China for years, expecting Chinese people to sort through our garbage and ready our waste for reuse.

Giant bales of recycling in Seattle, awaiting a destination

But the Chinese government doesn’t want to play such a role in the world–who can blame them? So, in January, exports of waste to China all but ceased and local supermarkets stopped accepting “clamshells,” plastic bags, plastic lids, and so on. I called the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality–I called across the Columbia to the State of Washington too–and learned that there was nowhere in the Northwest where “#1” clamshells could be recycled. Was such a place being hurried into operation? No. Almost a year later, the situation appears unchanged.

Meanwhile, much our my school’s recycling was so contaminated, we were really not recycling much at all.

Our facilities manager sent me this photo of contaminated recycling at our school

My first response was simply to recycle. I called around and found a few companies and programs where some types of plastic that we couldn’t easy recycle would be taken. The TREX decking company accepts “plastic film” meaning plastic shopping bags, Ziplocs, bubble wrap, and a few other #2 and #4 plastics (polyethylene). They even have a recycling contest for schools. There are dozens of pick-up spots in the area, including one just a mile or so up the road.IMG_9375

The Preserve company accepts “rigid” #5s. This is polypropylene. Like TREX, they have a number of drop-off spots, though fewer and largely limited to Whole Foods grocery stores.

A local company, Agilyx, collects polystyrene–#6s. It’s actually a lot of fun to drive down to their facility and dump several bags worth of styrofoam, drink lids, and take-out containers into a dumpster knowing that a few feet away it will be melted down or compacted and then sold for reuse. Very cool.


Over the summer, my Upper School Head kindly encouraged me to try to share my efforts in a way that might be educational. I’m lucky that I’ve had so much support. That said, I can’t control curriculum, so educating students about plastic pollution isn’t really an option. Neither is asking them to reflect on their experience recycling. I’m hoping this happens in the future. In the meantime …

HERE IS HOW IT WORKS, in a nutshell:

  • every two weeks students, in their advisory groups of 10-15, spend a few minutes checking recycling bins in a classroom building or sorting recycling at our “center”;
  • a Senior created an amazing app so students can check on their phones what can be recycled where at school;
  • the staff empties the bins of “curbside recycling,” hopefully less contaminated by garbage, as usual;
  • when bags of #5, #6, or plastic “film” are filled, they are tied up and marked;
  • using the app Remind, I round up volunteers to drive the recycling to local collectors.

So far, I have heard little complaint from students. None actually.

The “Recycling Center”
From left to right: #6s, a bag of 5s bound for Whole Foods, and bags of bags, all ready for pick-up!
Ugh. The cup has a plastic lining and can’t be recycled; the “sleeve” is paper; the cap is usually #6, sometimes #5 and always difficult to read! A lot of work, and waste, for a few sips of coffee!

Picture of recycling in Seatlle:




2 thoughts on “Beginning a Schoolwide Recycling Program Was Easier Than I Expected

Add yours

  1. Important work! A good learning experience for students, too!

    I am a little surprised that you had to do this, though — isn’t your school required to provide/operate an effective recycling program?

    Perhaps the most important lesson for students is that recycling is the 3rd priority in the 3 Rs.

    #1 is reducing the demand for single use products — instead of buying or serving things in wasteful packaging that has to be discarded or recycled, people & institutions should be using products that are designed to be reusable. That would be a good campaign for students to take on. (I cringed when you mentioned all the styrofoam & styrene!)

    #2 is, of course, to reuse products for another purpose when no longer useful for the original purpose. One part of this that’s often overlooked is of critical importance: making sure all food waste is composted, not sent to the landfill! (low-grade paper & shredded yard waste too)

    Recycling is important, but should only apply after #1 & #2.


  2. Peter: thanks for your comment. It gets at some of the difficulties a school faces in terms of reducing waste. Of course we have “curbside” recycling, but that doesn’t mean students, faculty, and staff (and parents) don’t throw trash into it. So my hope is that by having to go through the bins, students will learn what is recyclable and the importance of getting the right thing in the right place.
    The styrofoam I recycle usually comes from home–people bring it in. The rest comes from our IT department, which can’t control the packaging of laptops, etc. The good news is it’s easy to recycle.
    As for food waste, that is a tricky one. I was struck in Finland by the way that young schoolchildren were provided with a free lunch (so less packaging waste) and that adults stood by to help them learn portion control. In the American schools I have spent time in, students don’t control portions because the school is selling them the food. So some kids get food they don’t want or can’t finish.
    In the coming years, my school will build a new cafeteria–we currently eat in shifts in an old barn–and we hope to design the new building to minimize food waste.
    Thanks again!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s